Our greatest 20th century premier
Yesterday we buried a titan and she was a woman. Not since Churchill’s bravery when he took the awful decision to sink his French ally’s fleet in WWII, rather than let it fall into enemy hands, have we seen such a brave leader. I even think that Churchill might have blanched at the idea of sending the hugely depleted Fleet that Margaret Thatcher had at her disposal to rescue the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles away.
But her bravery extended well beyond the battlefield – something that Churchill’s did not. She took on and defeated ‘the enemy within’, as she called them: the Arthur Scargills, Derek Hattons and Ken Livingstones of this world. ‘Union Barons’, one by one, fell upon her lance until the wheel had turned full circle and we had the fewest strikes in all Europe.
Churchill had his own bitter enemies among the working classes as well as the establishment, but somehow their vehemence had faded under the glow of his magnificent conduct of the war and the glory of his rhetoric in its early days, urging his countrymen to stand fast and not be seduced by peace ‘with honour’ offer which he knew would turn out to be humiliating. But Margaret Thatcher’s enemies never left her in peace, not even in death. Whole swathes of industrial England, Scotland and Wales died on her watch. Most of them were dying anyway (as they had been under Labour), but she did nothing to slow the process.
Yet much the same was happening all over the industrialised West. Mines were closing and shipyards were losing out to cheap labour in the East; steel was being produced in the same areas at Mickey Mouse prices. Long-established and close communities who had come to rely on a single industry became a wasteland. Standing guardian over these nationalised and loss-making industries was a union hierarchy more powerful, many argued, than the state itself. It was said that no law could be enacted without their approval.
Thatcher believed herself to be on a mission to restore Britain’s governance, finances and greatness. She believed she saw a very sick patient whom only surgery could cure. The medicine, she knew, would be bitter and the recuperation hard. But she insisted it would be all be worth it. Some said she was stubborn, and she was. But she could be flexible when she needed to be; she could duck and dive with the best of them in politics, but on core issues, as she saw them, she would not budge. You don’t stay on the way to twelve years at the top (almost as long as Hitler’s Reich) without heavy doses of pragmatism.
Also she was not above using her sex either to get her way. Flirtatious Mitterrand, the French president, thought her coquettish and remarked that she had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” He fell in love with her ballroom dancing skills. In another world he would have had her – or at least tried.
For all this, Thatcher was an earnest woman, almost devoid of humour (jokes had to be explained to her). She had an almost childlike certainty that she knew what to do to lift the economy out of the pit of despondency into which it had fallen. When 360 of the country’s leading economists signed a letter to tell her that her policies were doomed, she ignored them. Once she was the boss she would brook no backsliders. She was dictatorial, but luckily she was compelled to operate within the constraints of a liberal democracy. But she got the essentials right and, remarkably, that army of doomsayers were proved wrong.
Personally, she was very kind to her staff and to the little people, the ones without power – but she could be brutal to those who wielded it. However, her all-consuming ambition made it impossible for her to be a hands-on mother; perhaps that wasn’t her style anyway. But in her extreme old age she did feel pangs of guilt. She shed more tears over her lost boys in the South Atlantic than ever she did for her own children. It is said that she never went to bed during the three months of the Falklands conflict, dozing instead on a chair, waiting to hear the telephone ring to tell her of more boys lost in the latest sinking. She took it all very personally. Churchill seldom did. An eyewitness told of her sobbing for 40 minutes non-stop when news reached her that another ship had been hit by a missile. When her own torpedo slammed into the cruiser Belgrano and sent Argentina’s sailors to the bottom of the icy south Atlantic, I have no doubt that her mother’s heart felt for those other mothers in far away Argentina. But if ‘cruel necessity’ – Cromwell’s justification for cutting off his own king’s head – called for its sinking to save her own precious boys, she would not hold back.
She was tough beyond belief – far tougher than any of the men who surrounded her. She would not yield to IRA hunger strikers, no matter what. It was a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It took ten emaciated corpses before the IRA conceded defeat. They repaid her by destroying her hotel and almost her.
Her toughness and certainty of the correctness of her policies followed through to the economic woes which beset the country; her monetarist measures brought record inflation to low levels; her privatisation of loss-making, nationalised industries stopped the haemorrhaging and put shares into millions of pockets, becoming a model for virtually the whole world; her sell-off of council houses made property owners of millions; her ‘Big Bang’ financial liberalisation in the City made London the world’s leading capital market; and her curbing of restrictive union practises such as flying pickets and the closed shop brought order to the factory floor. It is an impressive list and there is more.
But she made mistakes. She believed too much in the service economy and failed to realise sufficiently the importance of manufacturing. She was plain stupid in doing a dry run of the Poll Tax in, of all places, prickly Scotland – even though its principals were sound. (She never had any admirers in that part of the kingdom and still doesn’t.) And she should never have allowed herself to be talked into signing up to the ERM at a rate that shadowed the Deutschmark. Her earlier signing of the Single European Act cost her many of her cherished powers of veto. Also her closure of Grammar Schools exceeded even that of her Labour predecessors. It infuriated great numbers of her own followers.
Too long in power, and with the inevitable hubris setting in she finally gave the game away when she used the ‘royal we’ to announce the birth of a grandchild. Her patronising treatment and her public put-downs of her loyal chancellor and foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, were not pretty to watch and her hectoring style got worse the longer she remained in office.
But for all her faults and mistakes, she was nevertheless a force of nature that moved the economic firmament. There was no going back, even for an incoming Labour government. She also moved the political centre ground. It might be said that if you seek her monument, as Sir Christopher Wren once famously stated, “look around you”.
Nothing is the same. She was not interested in spin doctors, focus groups, think tanks, legions of special advisers or even the nasty things the papers said about her. She had a job to do and she would do it come what may. There is a certain courage here also. But if we still have difficulty in recognising her greatness then we have to cast our eyes around the world. All of its leaders are in awe of her achievements. They know a colossus when they see one. They were not distracted by the smoke and din of battle as we were here at home. They could see more clearly where she was headed. Their universal opinion was that Great Britain was a more respected nation than it had been at the start of her reign. Flags flew in many countries at half mast when her death was announced and most of all across the broad expanses of North America. There her name, alongside Ronald Reagan, is revered – as it is too across Eastern Europe, as the liberator from Communism. It was she who brought Gorbachev in from the cold and told her friend, the president, “this is a man we can do business with”. Together, their steely resolve and willingness to do whatever it took, brought the Cold War to a triumphant end. It might justly be said that had she accomplished nothing else, that alone would stand as a fitting testament.
Finally there is the no small matter of a grocer’s daughter – a woman – scaling the heights of a man’s world to achieve the highest office in the land. Women everywhere, and that encompasses the whole world, owe it to her that she has for all time proved – with her competence, drive, bravery and vision – that women are truly the equal of men and that there is no office of state that they cannot handle. In the great scheme of things I do believe that history will place her before Churchill – who, after all, was born to privilege – as our greatest 20th century premier.